Here’s why the autos have kissed the meters goodbye

Two weeks ago, my ever-reliable bike broke down for the first time since it was bought in May 2004. The bike’s gear shaft was malfunctioning and only the fourth gear would function. I pushed the bike every time I had to get it started. Yesterday on the way to the office from the workshop, where I left my bike for repair, I hired an auto. This is a distance of about 9-10 km from Alwarpet to Ekkaduthangal. The autowallah charged me Rs 90. I paid him without a murmur. I thought it was exorbitant, but today another autowallah charged me Rs 60 to go from Triplicane to Alwarpet.

Of course, I don’t want to bore you with why I pushed my bike all over the city. Or crib about the rising cost of petrol and such. That is a story you have heard. This one is about autos and why the city needs to do something to get them to work in a fair manner.

A few days ago, I came across a PDF file listing the rates for pre-paid autos for hire at Central station. A similar exercise done in Thiruvananthapuram a few years ago to carry passengers from that city’s railway station was a hit with passengers, but auto drivers protested the low rates. That plan was then dropped.

But the exercise done at Central is liberal towards the driver. The passenger has to pay at least Rs 10 per km. Everyone seems to happy with this except the passenger because he/she is paying a much higher rate than with regular autos.

For regular autos, meaning not the pre-paid ones, the rates fixed by the state government, which the auto unions have agreed to, are Rs 14 minimum charge and Rs 6 for every km thereafter. Going by that rule, you pay about Rs 30 on a regular auto but almost Rs 60 on a pre-paid auto to go from Central to Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane. Isn’t that a bit weird?

There are over 45,000 autos permitted in the Chennai, but the actual number run in the city is much higher. Many of the autos that ply here are from the neighbouring districts like Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram. These neither have unions nor can the drivers be persuaded to use their meters, unless they do it out of their own goodwill.

Sometime back in the view that the mechanised fare meters had to be modernised, electronic meters were brought in. So today, auto drivers are stuck with two meters, both of which have not been recalibrated to reflect the current rates.

Wednesday was the last day for autos using mechanised fare meters to recalibrate them. This deadline set by the Regional Transport Office authorities has now been flouted. Warnings have been heaped one upon the other, but auto drivers simply refuse to comply.

The deadline for recalibrating electronic meter has also come and gone in March, with nobody doing anything to enforce it.

I spoke to the auto driver I engaged today a bit about this. He thinks Rs 6 is too low for him. The poor fellow had to go to Adyar to get spectacles for his daughter. He showed me the bill. “I want to go to Adyar, but have to do with you today. I most probably won’t get a fare back from Guindy Industrial Estate. Only in Adyar and Anna Nagar can we ever hope to get a return fare. Elsewhere, the share autos have taken over,” he said in Tamil.

That’s true to an extent. Share autos have taken over in many parts of the city. I myself have used them from Guindy to Anna Statue on Mount Road, and from Thiruvanmaiyur to Neelangkarai on the ECR. Both journeys cost me Rs 10.

So it’s not just about us shelling out enough money to meet the auto driver’s needs. It’s also about his desire to make ends meet. He isn’t a salaried employee. Often he might have to rob a passenger blind to feed his family.

Here’s where the unions come in. If the current rate of Rs 6 per km, which was fixed only recently, is too low for them, the unions like the CITU, which is back by the CPM, an ally of the DMK, have to bargain with the state government for a better deal.

With modern public transport systems like the MRTS yet to fall completely in place, people in the city are reliant on autos to ferry them. Even for people who have lived in the city ever since they were born, it’s impossible to know at all times what a fair rate is from any given point to another, especially with the ever-changing price of diesel. For newcomers, the art of bargaining with auto drivers might prove to be elusive.

The authorities have to act quickly. Some are of the view that LPG in autos might make both drivers and passengers happy. I don’t know if that will work out.

The joint transport commissioner has warned that stringent action will be taken against auto drivers who don’t use recalibrated meters.

Truth is that drivers are hesitant to use the meters, recalibrated or not. They don’t think that the system will work for them. So here’s why auto drivers have kissed the meters goodbye.

Can we persuade them to use the meters? How can using autos be made into a better experience? The city administration has to think on its feet and get this done. Otherwise Chennai will forever be stuck with the label that the city’s auto drivers are all rowdies.

14 Comments so far

  1. Farida Jalal (unregistered) on April 26th, 2007 @ 10:34 am

    Auto drivers will have to follow the law and treat passengers fairly. If they are not making enough money on this, they may just need to work harder or find another job which will pay them more. There can be no justification or rationalization to cheat passengers (i.e. do unlawful or illegal things). All this is compounded by the fact that most auto drivers do not own their autos and they are infact run by the private owners who rent their autos out to the drivers. There is no sense of ownership either to the autos or to following rules on the road. This doesn’t seem to augur well for our city in the days ahead. The government or the CITU seem to be incapable to deal with this as nobody is willing to deal with the root cause of this issue.

  2. Navin (unregistered) on April 26th, 2007 @ 10:51 am

    It is said that atleast 50% of the Autos plying in the city belong to the police force. this being a lucrative investment of the money they “earn” ouside their salary. No wonder the Autos in chennai are beyond the realms of “law & order”!!

  3. beachsundal (unregistered) on April 26th, 2007 @ 12:06 pm

    I should say the remaining 50% belong to politicians, councillors, ward member, blah blah…autos are the most sickest thing to have happened to the chennai city. While the petrol prices are more in Bangalore and Bombay, don’t they abide by the right fare as set out by the union / government? I always hate the sight of an auto in chennai and worse, the auto driver. They exist purely for vote banks…if there are 45k autos and equal number of autos, what dent would it create to the politicians if they were to be totally abolished? Ramp up the public transport as it is believed to be happening now all should be peaceful.

    I could go on and on if there is something against autos and auto drivers…

  4. Ram (unregistered) on April 26th, 2007 @ 12:14 pm

    While I agree with you that the autorickshaw driver’s lot is not an enviable one – one has to seriously think about the victims and the fleecings — the rich will never use autos – the poor will also not – the low income group will use alternative means like a bus — it is only the middle income group that is affected.

    The fixation of 14 for the first two kilometres, and 6 for each km of the rest is very very reasonable — I use autos almost daily, and have an unwritten understanding with the autos in the nearby stand — they all know that the rate I pay is much more than what their doctored meters will show — just for the fun of it I asked one of the drivers to put the meter on (though our rate for this distance is 50 bucks) — the meter at the end of the journey showed 38 only

    And it is atrocious for the Tamilnadu Government to abet this fleecing by fixing a ‘prepaid rate’ from the railroad stations which is nearly double the rates. Our name is already mud in the eyes of our neighbours and it will be much worse now.

    And the drivers are willing to sit idle and chat if their demand is not met — they perhaps do not know that if they charge fair, they will get more and more rides resulting in a good daily earning

    Take the neighboring state Karnataka — their charges are comparatively lesser, they are willing to return the change after a ride, they do not ask for a flat rate and THEIR METERS ARE NOT DOCTORED at least till six months ago when I visited Bangalore

    It is not only the autodrivers you have to consider, but also the users.

  5. Planemad (unregistered) on April 26th, 2007 @ 1:39 pm

    Ive been in Chennai for two years and used those noisy yellow three wheelers at most 5 times. We no income people have learnt to use the bus and our feet. Its a great feeling to be liberated of autowallahs :)

  6. Vivek (unregistered) on April 26th, 2007 @ 3:15 pm

    About the Share-auto/Auto comparison –

    I’ve seen this arguments many times over in the newspaper and now here. Autowallahs compare the earning of shareauto guy to theirs and then ask us to pay the same (or similar) amount.

    Now, a shareauto guy carries 10 odd people .. and earns 100 bucks (mostly more than that) for each ride. I can not and will not pay a similar amount for that ride in an auto. That just doesn’t make sense.

    What these auto guys don’t realize is that if they start charging exact metered fare, accept those small rides of 15-20 bucks (AND be a little polite) most people would dump share-autos.

    I don’t like sitting besides some smelly guy yelling down my ears in a share-auto. But I have to, because autos charge me 50 bucks for kandanchavadi to thiruvanmyur (hardly 2.5kms)

  7. Vasanth (unregistered) on April 26th, 2007 @ 5:13 pm

    Most of the Autos in Bangalore run on gas and that’s the reason why there are able to charge meter fares. However, in Chennai I don’t think there even one auto which run on gas.

    I think like what Karnataka government did in Bangalore, enforcing meter fare and forcing the autos to go gas (which is more greener), the TN government has to do the same thing.

    But I don’t think, the government has the guts/willingness to do that.

  8. Thad E. Ginathom (unregistered) on April 26th, 2007 @ 8:41 pm

    Nandhu has attempted to do something unusual: present the Chennai auto driver in a positive light!

    Hey! Everybody deserves to have their case presented, and it was interesting to read the article.

    But, like the others, it seams, I remain largely unconvinced.

    The “new fares” were negotiated by Auto Driver unions, weren’t they? So how can the drivers say they are too low. Sure… nobody likes taking a pay cut, but…

    The phenomenon of the guy who would rather drive around empty than earn a fair 20 or 30 fare is also common; as is that of they guy who won’t even get into the vehicle and start the engine for anything less than he is demanding.

    Another thing is the hike that always follows a rise of a few paise in the cost of fuel. I’m just not convinced that the fuel consumption of those tiny engines is that much of a contributor to the cost.

    The only area in which I can find many ‘not guilty’ is rudeness and unhelpfulness. Yes, some of them certainly are; many, however, have been friendly and helpful to me.

    Nice try, Nandhu — but I’m yet another commenter not to be convinced.

    My verdict on Chennai Auto drivers? I bought a car.

  9. Parthasarathy (unregistered) on April 26th, 2007 @ 8:47 pm

    On a recent trip to Hyderabad, I noticed that there was a very long que of autos at the railway station – not comparable to the 2 dozen autos for a metro city like Chennai.

    Immediately, it became obvious who would win a haggling contest.
    Chennai needs much much more than the 45000 auto licenses that the police owned unions would allow. The government must ban policemen owning autos.

    Related to this issue, the ‘routes’ on which share autos are minting money, could be run profitably by state owned PTC, thus freeing up many share auto drivers for more useful purposes.

    The government should allow competition, thus giving more employment to unemplyed youth.

    But does the appeasment prone DMK have the will?

  10. dsfsf (unregistered) on April 27th, 2007 @ 1:01 am

    you r bast^*I^(*D

  11. Manoj (unregistered) on April 27th, 2007 @ 2:04 am

    Well in chennai if you are aware of the distance between two places you can bargain and get a good deal. But one advantage of Chennai drivers are that most of them are willing to ply albeit at a higher fare… But in bangalore you face the problem of refusing to ply… have a look at this blog.

    Regarding my experience I have seen some good drivers in Chennai too. There was this guy who charged me just 90 rupees for 16km distance from Chennai central to Valasaravakkam at 5 in the morning 2 years back… and he used meter that morning…. When I gave him 100 rupees he even gave me back 10 rupees… But there were times when I paid 150 as well…. It all depends how you bargain… For example I have never paid more than Rs.70 from Annanagar West depot to Chennai Central, whereas they start from atleast Rs.100

    Well I am not supporting them, but chennai auto drivers defintely have to change. They have to be polite and start using undoctored meter. It will help immensely to change the perception of Chennai in the eyes of the people who dont belong to Chennai…..

    There are really 3 things that sucks in Chennai

    1. Auto Drivers
    2. Water Problem
    3. Climate

    We cant do anything on item 3, But if 1 and 2 are improved, Chennai will be the best place to live in India.

  12. I love MTC (unregistered) on April 27th, 2007 @ 4:48 am

    I think the Problem 2 is kinda solved now. Enough rains, veeranam, Krishna water, desalination plant
    For Problem 1, we have our dear MTC or trains..what are you waiting for

  13. Thad E. Ginathom (unregistered) on April 28th, 2007 @ 1:22 am

    As things stand, we can only say the water problem is solved for this year.

    Until desalination actually starts to happen, we can’t look any further ahead than the next rain.

  14. sachin (unregistered) on April 30th, 2007 @ 6:39 pm

    If a city like Mumbai can run autos at 4.5 Rs a KM, then i dont think an auto in chennai deserves 10 Rs a Km. Whatever be the reason, including lack of business density .. 10 Rs is a bit too much. Running a luxury car is cheaper than that.

    Its an issue of demand and supply. If each auto agrees to run by the meter then they will definitely see more business because the general public will prefer public transport to running a bike or car for short distance. i think the problem is a mix of rowdyism, Communist backing of unions, exorbiant rentals by the acutal owners of the autos, police ownership,and mistrust of auto drivers on each other (no one wants to comply cause they all wanna make a bigger buck than each other).

    I guess if A/C Buses and modern Public Taxis get introduced in Chennai then they will be forced to submit and comply with the rules. They really need a hit on revenues in order to be disciplined.

    If a city like ours should have such a large density of two wheelers, then it definitely means that the public transport system is not meeting coverage, quality and service expectations of general public. There is a large untapped market for public transport in this city.

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